Pitch Count? We Don’t Need a Stinkin’ Pitch Count!

Sometimes a game is so full of badness, it ends up being great, like this little ditty from 1974.

I enjoy baseball Twitter, especially the posts of statistical oddities and whatnot. These tweets, by people such as Doug Kern, Mark Simon, or Jayson Stark (among others) usually take the form of “The Reds haven’t hit four batters in an inning since June 18, 1942.” No, that’s not a real thing. Usually, it’s based on Elias Sports Data, who refuses to believe that baseball happened pre 1901. To be honest, Retrosheet doesn’t have a lot of box scores for that era either.

But, thanks to Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference, it’s easy to look up most games. Sometimes, the tweeter helpfully posts a link to the earlier game in question. This happened recently, when Doug Kern tweeted this gem:

Because I love wild games like this, I had to look it up. A score of 18-9 in Wrigley Field? There must have been some shenanigans! And by gosh, there were some shenanigans!

But not all of them had to do with the buffoonery that led to 18 runs by the Cubs.

So, let’s take a look at this one. April 17, 1974 was a Wednesday, and it was a sunny and mild spring day. In 1973, both the Cubs and Pirates were in contention in the National League East in one of the wildest races containing six meh teams in history. Pittsburgh won the division from 1970-1972. The ‘71 team won the World Series. They had an off year in 1973 while coping with the death of Roberto Clemente, but the 1974 squad had a good number of players from those championship teams. Yet,they struggled to begin the year. On April 16, they won a 12-inning game against the Cubs, but that only put their record at 2-7.

Chicago was rebuilding. The team that came oh-so-close in 1969 was basically gone, and they were re-tooling with younger players. A 3-3 start seemed decent because of the new-ish blood.

The Cubs started Burt Hooton. The knuckle-curve specialist was entering his third full season. Hooton was expected to be a staff anchor along with Rick Reuschel and Bill Bonham. His mound opponent was Jerry Reuss. Reuss came over from Houston in the off-season for Milt May, which seemed lopsided in Pittsburgh’s favor. Both Reuss and Hooton were young and talented. It promised to be a good game.

It wasn’t.

The wind wasn’t gale force, but it was blowing out. Pitchers could limit damage by keeping the ball down and limiting singles and walks and let the home runs that do fly be solo shots. Well, in theory that’s the best plan of attack. In reality, pitchers sometimes can’t follow that plan.

Rennie Stennett opened the game with a single, and Richie Hebner singled him over to third. The Cubs caught a break when the Pirates put on a contact play and Al Oliver grounded to the pitcher, leaving Stennett a dead duck at the plate. Willie Stargell then took a pitch from Hooton deep, as he was wont to do. It was 3-0 Pittsburgh, and the game was just getting started.

Vic Harris hit a bloop single to start the home first. Rick Monday walked, and then after an out Sweet Swingin’ Billy Williams, one of the only holdovers from the glory years, drove in Harris with a single. After another out Bill Madlock walked. George Mitterwald, a catcher who was acquired from the Twins in the winter, then jacked a Reuss pitch out to left for a grand slam. Just like that, it was 5-3 after one inning, on only three Cubs hits.

Pittsburgh struck back in the second, with Manny Sanguillen singling, then after an out Reuss drew a walk. Harris muffed Stennett’s grounder at second, and then Hebner hit a single to shallow right scoring Sanguillen. Hooton settled down after that and it was 5-4 after 1 ½.

Reuss breezed through the first two batters of the second, but then Monday and Jerry Morales crushed a couple of Reuss pitches for dingers, and the Cubs went up 7-4 after two. One of those games in Wrigley, right? Get the bullpens ready!

Hooton got the Pirates out with relative ease in the third, only allowing a Texas League single. He’d faced 17 batters through three. With an extra inning game the day before that used five relievers, Chicago couldn’t afford Hooton to be knocked out of the box this early.

The Pirates had no such luxury, because Reuss couldn’t get out of the third. Jose Cardenal doubled to left. Madlock hit a pop fly double to right that scored Cardenal, and then Mitterwald deposited yet another blast amongst the bleacher bums to set the score at 10-4. Reuss gave up 10 runs on eight hits before his shower. John Morlan came in to calm things down and got out of the third without more carnage.

At this point, with Morlan coming up to bat, manager Danny Murtaugh surmised that he probably needed to get another pitcher some work and save Morlan for other relief outings. So he pinch hit for Morlan. Hooton got out of the top of the 4th by only giving up a hit, and Murtaugh then put Steve Blass on the hill to face the Cubs.

Steve Blass was a star for the Pirates and a rotation anchor for years. In 1972 he finished second in the Cy Young balloting and made the All-Star team. From 1964 through 1972 he won 100 games with a 3.27 ERA.

For some unexplained reason in 1973, he lost it. And I don’t mean just for a game or a month. He totally lost it. His name is now enshrined in baseball lore, as when a pitcher suddenly can’t throw strikes or get anyone out for an extended period of time, it’s said he has “Steve Blass disease”. This stemmed from Blass giving up 109 hits, 84 walks, and hitting 11 batters in just 88 2/3 innings. His ERA was 9.85. He fanned just 27 and threw nine wild pitches. He didn’t have an injury, and his mechanics seemed OK. He was just a disaster.

That carried over in the Spring Training of 1974, where he walked eight men in one inning. He belatedly joined the big league club and was put into this low leverage situation to see what he could do.

Big league hitters aren’t going to feel sorry for someone, even in a game that’s seemingly out of hand early in the year. They need to keep their timing and their mechanics in line, and if they gave up a few at bats that could mean the start of a cold streak and a pay cut.

Blass started his outing with the same issues he had in 1973 and in the spring. He walked Monday and Morales. Williams hit a line drive double to plate two. Jose Cardenal then grounded to Hebner at third, who couldn’t make the play.

Then, Madlock hit a ground ball to normally sure handed Dal Maxvill. He couldn’t handle it either. So, two runs in, bases loaded, and up comes Mitterwald. He had two home runs already and definitely could blast a third given the right pitch.

Blass walked the catcher plating another. It wasn’t a home run but it was another RBI, bringing his total to seven on the day in four innings. Blass then uncorked a wild pitch, scoring another, and another run scored on a grounder to Maxvill. Blass got two more ground ball outs, but the Cubs plated five on just one hit, and led 15-4 after four. 15 runs on just nine hits.

Hooton came out for the fifth. Even in these times, clubs usually rested their starters after they secured the win during a blowout. Hooton just needed to get through this inning and he’d have an easy W. He faced five batters in the fifth, giving up a single and having a batter reach on an error. Through five, he’d faced 28 hitters. Realistically, you’d think he’d just pitch another inning, maybe two.

But the pen may have needed rest after the extra inning contest the day before. They did have a few of relief pitchers that were reasonably fresh (Herb Hutson, Ray Burris, and Horacio Pina). It was anyone’s guess what the Cubs would do after the fifth.

Blass got through the Cubs’ fifth and Hooton faced just four batters in the top of the sixth. In the bottom of that frame, with one out, Madlock got a hold of one and drove it over the wall in center. Mitterwald then blasted his third tater of the game to right. The catcher had eight RBI already. The score was 17-4. Maybe now Hooton would leave. But no, he batted in the sixth and popped up.

So, Hooton got the Pirates easily in the 7th, thanks to a double play. Blass settled down again after giving up a single and another walk, thanks to a Pirates twin killing. Hooton, up 17-4, having faced 35 batters, went out for the eighth inning. By the way, the Cubs already had made two defensive substitutions on the day thanks to the blowout.

Hooton faced four batters in the 8th. Blass stays in the game – no reason for him to leave it – and has an inning fraught with peril. After a strikeout, he issued a walk to Madlock and then Mitterwald raked a double to left. That’s 14 total bases for the catcher on the day. I’m sure Jack Brickhouse was saying “Hey! Hey!” over and over again for him. After another out, Hooton came out to bat. I guess the Cubs were going to let him finish this thing.

Blass walked him, and then walked Harris to force in the 18th run of the game. Monday grounded out to the pitcher, and the play-by-play says pitcher unassisted at home. The runner on third was Matt “The Scat” Alexander, who ran for Mitterwald. Alexander was only in the majors because he was fast (he was one of Charlie Finley’s designated runners in 1976 and 1977). So something weird happened – and I wish I had the video to see how Blass got a 1UA put out at home with Alexander running from third. Alexander must have broken early and Blass ran at him.

Hooton came out for the ninth. He’d faced 39 batters and was up 18-4. What could go wrong?

Hebner started the inning with a blast making it 18-5. After an out, Stargell hit a blooper for a single. There was an error on the next play, and then a force out. Two out, runners on the corners. Sanguillen ripped one to left. It bounced around and he pulled in with a triple. Richie Zisk then pinch hit for Maxvill and walloped one over the wall in left. 18-9.

Hooton was STILL in the game. He allowed a single to Ed Kirkpatrick, and an infield hit to Stennett. Two outs, two on, and this being Wrigley Field, even a nine run lead in this situation makes one queasy. But Hebner grounded out, and the ballgame is over.

The Cubs scored those 18 runs on just 13 hits, thanks to six long balls and nine walks. They also reached on two errors by the Pirates. Overall, Chicago sent 47 batters to the plate.

Blass faced 28 of those. They were the last 28 he would see in the majors. He gave up five hits and seven walks in his five innings, giving up eight runs. The Pirates couldn’t afford any more time with him – they may have lost the 1973 pennant trying to get him right. So Blass agreed to a demotion to AAA, and did just as poorly, walking 103 in 61 innings and compiled a 9.74 ERA in the International League (one shudders what he’d have given up in the PCL). He was cut in the spring of 1975. Later he became a beloved broadcaster for the Pirates, and to this day has no flippin’ idea of what happened to him.

Hooton faced 47 batters as well. Despite the game being out of hand after the fourth, and despite almost an entire season ahead of them, the Cubs left him in the game. It wasn’t as if he had a clean sheet for most of the innings. He allowed 16 hits and a walk, the Pirates left 11 men on base, and the Cubs committed four errors as well. He also fanned seven. So, how many pitches did he throw?

I’d estimate about 3.5 pitches per at bat, since we don’t have pitch-by-pitch data. That’s…165 pitches (rounding up). At three pitches per AB it’s still 141, and at FOUR pitchers per batter it’s 188. So odds are he threw well over 150 pitches. He was also just 24. Many managers have left pitchers in for that many pitches in tight games when they are throwing well (or in Billy Martin’s case when he just hated his bullpen), but not in laughers like this, and not in April.

Hooton paid for it the rest of the year. He was counted on to be a solid staff anchor, but he gave up 14 runs in nine innings in his next three starts. In May, he had a couple of longer outings as well (10 1/3 against the Pirates and a start where he gave up 12 hits and seven runs in seven innings. After a June start where he gave up seven runs in 3 2/3, he was sent to the bullpen for a month.

He made three July starts, was hammered again, and was exiled back to the pen until late August. Then he made spot starts, pitching a shutout in one, but getting blistered in others. Overall, he went 7-11 with one save and a 4.80 ERA. Starter or reliever, he never got on track after he threw so many pitches in April. Arm fatigue may have been a factor – it wasn’t a coincidence that his trouble started soon after this game.

The Cubs being the Cubs, they traded Hooton to the Dodgers in early 1975 after he made three bad starts out of the gate. He then won 18 games for LA that year, and later was part of three teams that went to the World Series. He also finished second in the 1978 Cy Young Race.

The two pitchers the Cubs received for him, Buddy Solomon and Geoff Zahn, threw only 77 2/3 innings for them in 1975 and 1976. Solomon was traded to the Cardinals later in 1975 for Ken Crosby. Crosby threw 20 horrible innings for the team over two seasons before he was released after the ’76 season. Zahn was released in early 1977, and signed with the Twins. He won 105 games with a 3.77 ERA for the Twins and Angels after he hung ‘em up. Go Cubs!

After this messy contest, the Cubs struggled, finishing 66-96, and were in the doldrums (with only a few moments of grandeur) until 1984. Pittsburgh soon righted the ship and won their fourth division title in five years in ‘74. They won another in 1975 and won the World Series in 1979.

If the above wasn’t enough weirdness, the day after this game, the Pirates lost to the Cubs 1-0, giving up an unearned run in the first inning on a sacrifice fly. Ken Frailing pitched for Chicago, and threw seven innings of shutout ball, facing only 31 batters, before giving way to Ray Burris. Why?

Because… baseball.

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